Bigger Than It Seems
They are your first place Minnesota Twins.
Winning their first series of the year is exactly what you would expect from a team that is expected to challenge for the divisional crown. Because of the expectations heaped on the Twins, a triumphant first series might not seem especially important.
So let's rephrase this week's success. The Twins went into a 97-win team's stadium and took three out of four games, tallying 22 runs to the Angels' 12. And while the Angels lost John Lackey and Vladamir Guerrero from last year's AL runner-up, they also gained Joel Pineiro and Hideki Matsui to replace them, and now they have a healthy Ervin Santana. The Angels aren't just any team.
Our Twins get another very good litmus test this weekend, when they visit Chicago. We get to see if Francisco Liriano is ready for prime time. They face their likely division challengers on the road in a park where they've had little success over the last two years. And due to some messed up scheduling, the Twins should be tired as hell for today's game - usually the schedule makers would have allowed yesterday's game to be an afternoon start.
I'll be honest - I'll also be a little giddy. If they come out of this series with two wins, I'm be planning the parade before the home opener.
The Sacrifice Bunt
Lost in last night eventual 10-1 route was a somewhat controversial decision in the 7th inning which ended up being the wrong one. What we don't know is if there was a right one. With runners on 1st and 2nd base and no outs, and with the score only 3-1, Denard Span bunted to move the runners and gave himself up at first.
There are generally some pretty strong feelings on both sides of this decision. The first is semi-old-school: this is a great play, in part because it is automatically smart and sacrifices an at-bat for the good of the team. The second is more sabremetric, which teaches that most of the time bunting is stupid and costs a team runs.
In this case, neither is right. The baseline for this decision can also be evaluated two ways: which strategy is likely to score the most run vs. which strategy is most likely to result in a win. And in both cases, the answer is essentially a push. There is almost no difference is how many runs an average team playing against an average team will score if they bunt those runners over as opposed to swing away. And there is almost no change in the likelihood of winning the game.
But the key to that last paragraph was the italicized word "average". That is nothing more than a baseline evaluation. What really needs to be evaluated is how these teams differ from an average team.
The batter who was up at the plate, is decidedly above average, especially when it comes to getting on base. Above all, Span wants to avoid the double play, and with his speed, he's in a pretty good position to do so. On the other hand, he was 0-3 with three groundouts to the pitcher and second baseman last night. He was also involved in an injury break the previous night that required icing. He could very well be suffering a short-term decline in performance from it, and his manager (or Span) might have noticed that.
The batter following Span is Orlando Hudson, the team's #2 hitter, who is also an above average hitter. If Span bunts, it's his job to get a run home via a fly ball or smoked ground ball. In this case, he grounded out to a drawn in infield, and the runner from third could not score.
Finally, the sacrifice virtually ensured that Joe Mauer would come to bat. Mauer is obviously WAY above the average player, exactly who any manager would want to have up with two outs and a runner in scoring position. Again, it didn't work out, as he grounded out to third base and the Twins ended up with zero runs.
Obviously, that's just half the equation. We could also talk about the Angels pitcher, and to what extent he induced groundballs or strikeouts. Or evaluate their infield, which looked pretty strong in three of the four spots yesterday.
If the Twins have a weak hitter up in that position, followed by two strong hitters following, bunting is likely a winner, no question. If they have good hitter, followed by two weaker hitters, it's likely a mistake. In this case, they had three good hitters, which makes it less clear. I'm swayed a bit by Span's earlier at-bats that maybe he wasn't totally healthy last night. On the other hand, Hudson didn't impress offensively or defensively this series, though I expect him to be better over the season.
Whatever the smart decision was, this one didn't score any runs, so I think we can safely say it was the wrong one. What we don't know is if Span swinging away would have turned out any better. There may not have been a right decision here.
I don't know why we feel like we need to wait for a pennant race to come together as a community and get excited about this team. For all we know, this weekend might BE the pennant race. If the Twins sweep the Sox and take a 4.5 game lead over them in the first week....
OK, I'm being giddy again. But you can experience that giddiness and that sense of community with me tomorrow at Major's in Blaine for our Twins Viewing Party. It's a day game, so it starts at 12:05, though I would suggest getting there a little earlier for seats. $2 pints, two-for-one appetizer, a raffle for Twins tix, and lots and lots of Twins talk. I hope you can make it.